In the cathedral-like Guildhall civic center at the heart of Derry-Londonderry, an exhibit on the history of the city invites visitors to scribble questions or opinions on pieces of paper at the main displays. This seems a genuine effort at inviting dialog, at prompting a community forum, a discussion. The written comments mostly seemed to come from children, the hope of the future. The gesture of openness, of listening, expressed the emotion of a modern outdoor sculpture not far from there – two lean young figures of men twisting their bodies to reach across a divide to touch hands, not quite touching yet, but trying.
Most of the questions posed by the exhibit were about the idea of the Plantation – the British effort to establish a controlling presence in Ireland starting around 1607 by sponsoring settlers from England and Scotland to homestead the land left by “the flight of the Earls.” The Earls were Irish Catholic aristocrats who had been given vast lands in the north under an agreement that allowed governance by the English Crown. The Earls, eventually, couldn’t abide the agreement, and fled to Catholic Spain.
In came the English and Scottish fishmongers, vintners, linen-makers and such, hearty and ambitious Presbyterian Scots and London craftsmen with their Church of England bishops and charters from London. They prospered, and the local Catholics stayed poor. Of course this was asking for trouble. The Plantation wasn’t their land, was it?
Asked by the exhibit to say what I thought about the Plantation system, I’ve been thinking about this awhile now. The English Crown – Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and then James I – had reason to worry about being attacked by Catholic powers on the continent, using Ireland as their launch. The Spanish Armada of 1588, after all, was not just a battle, but an all-out effort of Spain to take control over England. (The cannon we saw that was excavated 40 years ago from a sunken Spanish warship from the Armada and on display in Derry is a monster, far bigger than a ship cannon, obviously intended for a ground war on English soil.) It must’ve felt like the Soviet Union sending missiles to Cuba in 1962, or the fear Americans had earlier of Communist spies and sympathizers in the government.
In back of that were greater anxieties throughout Europe. Between about 1492 and 1688, in those two centuries, European nations all scrambled to extend their reach and power. Why? Was it defensiveness, or ambition, or curiosity about the larger world and larger possibilities for the human experience? If defensiveness, remember that the Islamic empire had been even more powerful than parochial little Europe in the previous centuries, and had made incursions into Spain, up the Adriatic to Venice and up to the gates of Vienna. The Battle of Lapanto in 1571 was little quarreling Europe’s version of the Spanish Armada, saving Christendom from Byzantium’s Muslim might as if by a miracle. The restlessness of Europe in the so-called Age of Exploration is something to contemplate.
In any case, it occurs to me that the Plantation system in Northern Ireland was just another piece of the Plantation system that brought the English to Virginia (also starting in 1607), to Massachusetts (in 1630) and to my home state of Georgia (in 1733). It brought a new culture to those lands, and it brought violence and burglary, but also some good. There was evil in other systems of national expansion too, and some good.
Moral judgment from this distance seems ignorant. But we can at least see that there were other options besides the Plantation system, and each was a mixed bag. At the risk of oversimplifying, I name the options this way.
The Spanish: All male force of soldiers, with a few priests; penetrating into the land, conquering, killing, grabbing wealth, and returning with booty. Sort of like the Viking system, with guns.
The English: Mix of men and their wives, procreating, planting farms and towns, churches, acquiring land by any means possible. Relations with natives tentative.
The French: All male venture with curiosity about exotic culture, relating to it like an anthropological participant-observer, mapping, intermarrying with the indigenous women, appreciating the Other (as long as they learned to speak French).
The Dutch: Trade with the Other; non-violent, capitalistic, and relatively detached. (Thanks, Nessa O’Mahony, for suggesting this fourth one.)
What do you think? Which one was nicest? Which one solved Europe’s anxieties best?